Big theology news: Pope Francis agrees that various world religions were 'willed' by God

Big theology news: Pope Francis agrees that various world religions were 'willed' by God

Believe it or not, the language of theology can make news, every now and then. This is especially true when the person speaking the words is the occupant of the Chair of St. Peter.

However, this goes against one of the great unwritten laws of journalism, which appears to state something like this: Whenever the pope speaks, even in a sermon, the most important words are always those that can be interpreted as commentary on events or trends in contemporary politics. This is consistent with this journalism doctrine: Politics is the ultimate reality. Religion? Not so much.

For a perfect example of this law, please see this story in The New York Times: “Pope Francis Breaks Some Taboos on Visit to Persian Gulf.”

The taboos that make it into the lede are, of course, political and, frankly, they are important. This is a case in which Times editors really needed to insist on a difficult and rare maneuver — a lede that lets readers know that the story contains TWO very important developments.

The political angle raised eyebrows among diplomats. But there was also a theological statement linked to this story that will trouble many traditional Christians, as well as Muslims. Then again, Universalists in various traditions may have every reason to cheer. Hold that thought. Here is the political overture.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Pope Francis used the keynote address of his roughly 40-hour stay in the United Arab Emirates to breach delicate taboos on Monday, specifically mentioning Yemen, where his hosts are engaged in a brutal war, and calling on countries throughout the Gulf region to extend citizenship rights to religious minorities.

The remarks by Francis were exceptionally candid for a pope who as a general rule does not criticize the country that hosts him and avoids drawing undue attention to the issues that its rulers would rather not discuss. …

But on Monday, during the first visit by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula, where Islam was born, Francis was blunt in a speech before hundreds of leaders from a broad array of faiths on a day used to underscore the need for humanity to stop committing violence in the name of religion.

“Human fraternity requires of us, as representatives of the world’s religions, the duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word ‘war,’” Francis said at the towering Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi.

“Let us return it to its miserable crudeness,” he added. “Its fateful consequences are before our eyes. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya.”

Yes, the reference to Yemen was big news. Yes, that had to be in the lede.

So what was the theological news?

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The Saudi puzzle: Here are four religion threads woven into this sordid political drama

The Saudi puzzle: Here are four religion threads woven into this sordid political drama

Saudi Arabia is, currently, for the most part a political story. Though for the sake of historical perspective, let’s not forget that, this certainly is not the first time a United States president has decided to put markets or narrow politics ahead of social justice concerns.

Ever hear of Pinochet’s Chile, Batista’s Cuba, the Shah’s Iran, or Egypt and Pakistan under any number of leaders, just to name a few?

Perhaps it's the ham-fisted manner in which our current self-styled Lord of the Manor, President Donald Trump, has handled the matter that has elevated it to its current degree? Or perhaps it’s because of social media and our rapacious 24-7 news cycle that presidents no longer can easily sidestep policies their political opponents wish to highlight?

Politics aside — if that’s even possible — there are at least four religion angles to the Saudi story that are very much worth considering, however. The first three, I confess, I’m giving short shrift because I want to reserve ample space here for a forth angle, the knottiest of the quartet I’m highlighting.

Here are the first three.

Historically, the most important angle is how the (must we still say, “apparent”?) Saudi murder and coverup of former Washington Post oped writer Jamal Khashoggi has become part of the historic rivalry between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for dominance over Sunni Islam.

Here’s a solid backgrounder from Foreign Policy that covers that history.

One wonders whether any number of other Muslim nations would have raised Khashoggi’s death to the level that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did if they lacked his Ottoman fantasies?

The Post, of course, would probably have reacted as it did no matter where Khashoggi was killed — as it should have. But would the newspaper have had the same level of information to go on if not for Erdogan’s desire — remember Turkey is no friend of a free press — to rub Saudi Arabia’s nose in the mud?

A second angle is the nail in the coffin that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman —  the petroleum-rich, absolute monarchy’s de facto ruler — has put in the Pollyanish notion that his ascendancy to power would result in a loosening of the kingdom’s myriad and ultra-conservative religious reins, particularly in their application to women.

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U.S. press bestows blessing on 'frenemy' Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman, perhaps prematurely

U.S. press bestows blessing on 'frenemy' Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman, perhaps prematurely

Following a weekend in New York -- where I made sure to down a couple of the Big Apple’s unofficial, official drink, the egg cream (I prefer vanilla) -- I returned to my current home in Maryland, where I proceeded to go through my waiting mail.

There he was -- again. Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (often referred to as MBS), his face gracing the cover of the latest issue of Time.

But of course. Media speaking, it’s his moment in the spotlight. Heir to the throne of his critically important Arab nation, American news media offered up near blanket coverage of his now completed three-week visit here.

The question is, how to portray him?

As a modernizer out to update the public face of traditionally uncompromising, Saudi-style Wahhabi Sunni Islam by, among other things, allowing women to drive cars and speaking about allowing public movie theaters to open (amazing, but that’s what passes for reform in socially constricted Saudi Arabia, even in 2018)?

As a two-faced but media-savvy, all-powerful monarch in-waiting who imprisons his domestic foes and financially shakes them down, while simultaneously trying to divert attention from his nation’s horrible human rights record so as to gain strong Western support for Saudi Arabia in its building conflict with Iran, with which it fights a devastating proxy way in Yemen?

My view?

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Save this New York Times Sunni-Shiite conflict backgrounder while awaiting Trump's moves

Save this New York Times Sunni-Shiite conflict backgrounder while awaiting Trump's moves

The New York Times -- still outclassing its Americans rivals in Middle East coverage -- has served up a valuable historical overview of the Saudi-Iranian proxy war conflict. It's not only worth reading, it's worth saving for those deadline moments when a quick history check is in order.

I've posted here before about the Saudi-Iranian competition for Middle East domination. I've also posted on the ongoing, multi-angled coverage of Saudi Arabia at the Times.

Why so much attention to this topic? And how might President-elect Donald Trump handle the situation?

 First question first.

Why, because the conflict, at its root a continuation of Islam's historic, internal holy war between the religion's majority Sunnis (read, Saudi Arabia) and minority Shiites (read, Iran) is at the core of today's seemingly endless Middle East bloodshed.

(Yes, it's the Sunni-Shiite contest, inflamed by political maneuvering by a coven of authoritarian dictatorial governments, and Russia, that's at the root of the chaos. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as central as it may be to these two actors, long ago took a backseat to the Islamic sectarian war.)

Here's how the Times historical overview explains it, starting with the lede:

Behind much of the Middle East’s chaos -- the wars in Syria and Yemen, the political upheaval in Iraq and Lebanon and Bahrain -- there is another conflict.

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It's time to add the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen to the journalistic shopping list

It's time to add the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen to the journalistic shopping list

There's very little that unites Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran these days, but here's one thing that does. Both Muslim nations mix austere religion with political repression to the detriment of individual freedoms.

But you knew that, right? So why bring it up again? Because of the worsening situation in Yemen that started as a civil war but has morphed into an increasingly bloody proxy war between the two Middle East powerhouses.

There's much more to say about Yemen, and we'll do so below. But first here's a couple of examples of how far-reaching the heavy theocratic hands extend in Riyadh and Teheran.

I present them as examples of how misdirected the priorities of the two governments are.

The first example is this recent Washington Post story about a Saudi teen who became love struck online. Click here for the details of how he was arrested for flirting online -- "goofy" flirting, according to the Post -- with a California woman barely out of her teens that he asked to marry.

Abu Sin (the teen's nickname that in Arabic means "the toothless one"; referring to his misaligned teeth) was arrested for "violating decency and religious values," says the Post piece. It added:

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New York Times tackles the complex story of Saudi Arabia spreading influence and problems

New York Times tackles the complex story of Saudi Arabia spreading influence and problems

Soon after I started contributing to GetReligion last year I posted a piece that ran under the headline: "Do American newspapers have the time, space and patience to cover Saudi Arabia?" I concluded that more meaningful coverage of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), as the petroleum-rich monarchy is formally known, was needed for Americans to better understand the Middle East's interrelated array of serious problems.

I'm sure my post has nothing do with it, but I'm pleased to now write that The New York Times in recent months has published a series of probing, in depth stories on the KSA that should be required reading for all.

For religion and international affairs reporters in particular, Saudi Arabia is a critically important story to follow. That's because if for no other reason, global Muslim terrorism is a deadly, ongoing phenomenon that has no end in sight.

And guess what. The KSA's brand of deeply conservative Islam known as Wahhabism is one reason for this brutal chaos.

Journalists should learn all they can about the kingdom's exportation of Wahhabism throughout the Muslim world, including its influence on the Islamic State (ISIS), Al Queda and other jihadi groups.

The Times is as well positioned as any elite, international newspaper -- and, seriously, how many are in its league to begin with? -- to report the breath of the KSA's often negative impact on global affairs.

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Did gunmen in Yemen kill the four Missionaries of Charity for any particular reason?

Did gunmen in Yemen kill the four Missionaries of Charity for any particular reason?

So what would Pope Francis, stepping into a media-critic role for a moment, have to say about this BBC coverage of that slaughter at the retirement home in Yemen?

We don't know what he thinks about the BBC report in particular, but it is quite similar to the other mainstream news reports about this incident that I have seen. Please watch the BBC report (at the top of this post) or read this brief BBC summary, taken from the Internet.

The key question appears to be this: Did religion have anything to do with who died and who lived in this attack? To state the matter another way: Should these nuns be considered Christian "martyrs"? Here is the entire BBC summary:

Pope Francis has condemned a gun attack on a Catholic retirement home in southern Yemen which left 16 people dead.
Four nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, were among those killed.
Local officials in the port city of Aden are blaming the so-called Islamic State group, as David Campanale reports.

Actually, if you seek out the Catholic News Agency report about the attack you will find that Pope Francis did more than lament the attack itself. He is upset about the lack of coverage. Here is the top of the CNA story:

VATICAN CITY -- On Sunday Pope Francis lamented the world’s indifference to the recent killing of four Missionaries of Charity, calling them the ‘martyrs of today’ and asking that Bl. Mother Teresa intercede in bringing peace.

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